Three Farmers on Their Way To a Dance

by Richard Powers

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 609

In the first chapter of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, the first-person narrator happens upon a haunting August Sander photograph in the Detroit Institute of Arts while passing some hours between trains. The photograph captures three youthful peasants resplendent in weekend finery. The picture, bearing the same title as Powers’s book, is dated 1914. Given that date, the narrator reads his own meaning into the title: The dance these rural Americans are destined for is World War I.

The first narrative frame of the novel recounts the narrator’s search for basic information about the picture and, once he has gained it, about the people Sander’s lens captured. It turns out that all three—Hubert, Adolphe, and Peter—died in the war.

Yet Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance is about much more than three peasants united in an obscure photograph. The book recounts in some detail the birth of twentieth century modernism and the virtually unbelievable interconnectedness of all human events. In order to fix the story historically, Powers provides readers with recurring interchapters, all related in some way to his skillful development of the book’s three major plots.

Several historical interchapters deal with the impact Henry Ford had upon American life and culture. Powers includes an interchapter on Ford’s unofficial diplomatic efforts to end World War I by chartering an ocean liner and sailing it to Norway with as many prominent people as he could cudgel into joining his midwinter voyage, hoping that this cadre of celebrities might negotiate a peace treaty. Other historical chapters treat such figures as the renowned nineteenth century actress Sarah Bernhardt, the essayist Walter Benjamin, and others whose lives impinge upon the three main stories.

The narrator’s account of his quest for information about the photograph constitutes the first narrative frame, which is related closely to the other two narrative frames and to the interchapters. The second frame is concerned with the three subjects in the picture and their simultaneously independent and historically interdependent existences. The third frame, a modern romance, concerns Peter Mays, a computer editor in Boston who pursues a haunting redheaded woman on the street, only to discover that she is an actress playing Sarah Bernhardt in a one-woman show.

Peter Mays, it turns out, has immigrated to the United States from the area that was home to Sander’s three farmers. Peter, indeed, is the son of the brightest of these, also named Peter. When the younger Peter gave his full name—Peter Hubertus Kinder Schreck Langerson van Maasricht—to immigration officials at Ellis Island, he became “Peter Mays,” the name he subsequently carries.

Sarah Bernhardt is subtly woven into each plot. Henry Ford figures in the Peter Mays story because Peter, scavenging in his mother’s attic, discovers a picture that leads him to the discovery that he might be due a $250,000 legacy from Ford’s estate. He also discovers among his mother’s possessions a print of Sander’s photograph of the three farmers, one of whom is Peter’s father.

The narrator is last seen at an office Christmas party, where he talks with Mrs. Schreck, the aging immigrant who cleans his office. She has a motherly interest in him, regularly leaving chocolate bonbons on his desk. Mrs. Schreck knows Sander’s picture and something about its subjects. She does not, however, have the answers the narrator seeks. A clandestine meeting with her in her home reveals only that the three subjects in the Sander picture “had led lives as verifiable, if not as well documented, as any of those Great Personalities I had poured over.”

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